Monday, May 2, 2016

Fear: The Writer's Merit Badge

  If you were looking for a one-word definition of fear for use in a dramatic argument, which is to say a story, or as a point of logic in an essay, chances are strong you'd choose dread. 

The You, in the essay, or your surrogate character in a story, would accept that definition, even though dread doesn't pack the emotional wallop.  I dread the thought. Nice enough, but lacking some of the physical effects fear can work on you or the psyche of a character.

You can dread a forthcoming event, dread the forthcoming results of some test, trial, or performance, but chances are you could fall asleep in the face of your dread while fear itself could keep you from sleep or from being absorbed in the things you are so frequently absorbed in when you are nor fearful.

Look at it this way:  Fear is a commanding presence, one that can take you away from music, reading, writing, a remarkable meal, and the proper enjoyment of friends.Once you've experienced fear in the immediate moment or the dread of the effect yet to come, you've earned your way up the ladder of appreciation at being able to become so caught up in some other emotion or state of mind. 

Thanks to fear, you understand how commanding a presence it is when you are in effect merged with your focus on your other project at hand.These merged states are the ones you've become attached to, starting with the times of childhood when you were merged with nothing so much more exciting than putting on a sock, where a parent would find you, as though in a catatonic state. Then, you were merged with the wonder of everything, Sirens calling you to the thrill of the world and your youth. 

Later, you were able to become merged with something you were writing, a symptom that grew until you found times where you were merged with the work you were trying to compose. Then you came to understand the fear of the thing you were merged into being of no greater importance than you, putting on your sock.

Fear has that distracting effect, on humans and on the characters they create. And yet, fear is one of the most useful implements in the writer's tool kit and a vital force to have for a human. This is not merely to recognize fear as an early warning system alarm, slipping the note under the door to tell us we are in some serious fucking danger, rather to remind us how fortunate we are to have any presence of it in our life.

To some degree, you're afraid of at least one thing every day, even if that fear is a reminder you might be late for an appointment, a meeting, a class, or a deadline. This last, deadline, is of splendid relevance in its direct association with performance. 

Deadline means a promised time to have a project, such as a story, ready to hand over to a publisher, or a speech or lecture close enough in hand to be presented to an audience or to a lens, which will capture enough of you for later projection to an intended audience.

Your life, and the lives of your characters, would become hollow misery if neither you nor they suffered fear at any level. The result would be an overwhelming projection of confidence, perhaps even arrogance, two qualities you recognize as symptoms leading to humor inherent in such individuals. 

For all he was well conceived and presented, the character of Sherlock Holmes provides us a splendid example of a nearly fearless individual. Holmes's nearest imagined fear is the one of boredom.

A step or two beyond your role as a person who on occasion is subject to fear, there lurks the you as a person who wishes to spend as much time as possible in a writing mode or, beyond that, in a reading mode, much less in a regular person role. 

This is because you have a higher degree of control than you have as a regular person, even though you bring fear right along with you in the sense that when you look at your work the subsequent day to having done it, you will find one major flaw or a series of small, irritating ones, in either case giving you cause to fear there is no way out of the conundrum into which you have worked yourself, nor indeed is there sufficient questioning and presence to suggest any degree of relevance or merit.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


When you used to brew your coffee using the elegant Chemex device, you'd begin by pulling a large, circular leaf of filter paper from its container, fold it into quarters, then insert it in the upper cone, prior to measuring in freshly ground coffee. 

The next step became pouring a measured amount of boiling water over the grounds, then waiting for the water to work its way through the filter paper, taking with it the aromatic essences and oils, leaving the dross clinging to the filter paper.

If you'd not moved along in preference to having your coffee in its espresso form, you'd still be using the Chemex device because of its performance and its aesthetic appearance. Chemex coffee is quite companionable. 

To someone who drinks a good deal of coffee, the Chemex system has the ability to allow making enough to last for most of the day with less chance of the brew turning rancid.

Chemex is in so many ways the essence of simplicity. William of Occam would have appreciated it: Glass, filter paper, water, ground coffee. The key element here is the filter. A similar effect is to be had with computer programming, in which a given program filters out undesirable codes and random elements, allowing only a specific filtrant, not unlike Chemex coffee.

When the matter shifts to narrative and to the dramatic narrative known as story, a filter provides a specific result of its own, a sense of who is bringing the narrative or story forward, what qualities and characteristics are allowed to seep through, and which are intercepted. 

In most instances, narrative thought of as nonfiction is run through a filter whose job it is to block out unreliability. You remember your times working at the Associated Press, where the narrative without a by-line was held in the highest esteem. You were told by the editors that such a story reflected the essential nature of the Associated Press, which was the nature of trustworthy presentation of known information,

The by-line is a different kind of filter, in effect removing a layer or two of objectivity in favor of allowing more obvious opinion. This brings us directly to the by-line in fiction which, by its very nature, has prevented more objectivity from leaching through and, in fact, enabling bias or astigmatism or perhaps even color blindness.

Part of the act of revision involves coming to terms with what kind of filter to use for producing the narrative at hand. Do you wish to block the naivete of the narrator or let it come through? Do you wish to filter out reliability and, thus, let the dramatic information come through the senses of an unreliable narrator? Or perhaps you'd prefer to let one or more of your narrators have to deal with a particular bias they will have to cope with during the arc of the story.

If you educate yourself to include this concept of filtration when you reach the examination and revision stage, you'll be taking a step toward arriving at a purer view of the narrative or story at hand, wherein the colorblindness, which is a physical variant, or a bias, which is an emotional one, is the filtrant least likely to turn rancid.

Saturday, April 30, 2016


If we compare persons and objects in motion with persons and objects at rest, we may show some curiosity about how the person or object at rest came to be at a particular place and even some mild concern for how they got there, but the persons and objects in motion trigger our senses of drama, apprehension, and often evoke outright envy.

Motion and stasis are ways by which we may consider ourselves, story, and Reality. With the possible exception of the beckoning fascination of a campfire, there is little than can impress us as much as movement.  

"There is a man or woman going places," we say of an individual who seems in motion on a path toward a distinguished destination. "There goes the neighborhood," we've said, at times in recognition of decay, urbanization or, I'm more recent terms, gentrification.

These are some of the many terms we use in relationship to individuals who appear to be living enactments of the kind of force in motion we call a vector. Many of these terms produce the kinds of emotions in real life that we see dramatized in story. And when we hear the warning to "Look out for that rock," we know we've been alerted to a force of nature we may not be able to control.We also understand how Nature, if such we call it, has the capacity to amaze and enrich our lives as well as the ability to take it.

To some degree, you are a contemplative individual, often considering the terrain about you from behind a mug of coffee or a tall glass of chilled ale or Pilsner, but as well, you've put in your time in motion in both literal and figurative senses, moving toward elected goals, moving away from behavior or tendencies you may no longer find agreeable.

To the extent that you studied basic astronomy at the university and have inspiration, causes for awe, and causes for wonder by observing the day and night skies from numerous perspectives, you are aware of being resident on a large, circular sphere of remarkable composition, being drawn by unseen tugs of gravity and momentum in an orbit, through a universe that seems, even with your limited perspective of such matters, to be in a near constant state of expansion.

As much as factors such as direction and momentum have effects on story and on life, here you are to venture that orbit, which is the curved or elliptical path of a body through some medium, relates even more in metaphor and actuality. From the moment of conception, we are on an orbit to birth, at which point we are launched into yet another, sometimes of our making, other times not, being propelled by the gravitational forces coming from Life which, if not a celestial entity, is certainly an energy field. 

In your speculations about the nature of things, you have grown over your years to equate life with story, since each has beginning, middle, and end, as well as orbiting qualities that include our tendencies and quirks. 

For reasons you do not completely understand or perhaps do not understand at all, being in an orbit seems more of a comfort to you than being on a more linear path. Revolving about Life, about other individuals and falling rocks, seems more of a condition where you have a small amount of control, rather than the more linear and direct straight line.

One of your favored examples of a story became favored when you recognized it was a perfect example of an orbit rather than a straight line. At one time, the story of Sisyphus and his rock was merely a cautionary tale left over from the older days of human endeavor and the interactions of humans with gods. Seeing it as orbital allows you to see the unexpected magic of how a true story is not linear but orbital, can begin in several different places, each potential beginning a potentially different point of view.

This vision allows you the luxury of differing visions for differing needs; it is an unexpected reward for following story in its orbit about Reality while you are following your personal orbit about Life.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Celebration of the Celebrated Jumping Frog

For many years, you've been able to list a number of disagreeable things about your favorite author's work, by no means the least of which is the limited use to which he puts female characters. Since you began keeping track of such things, your revisiting of his work allows you to add to the list. 

Nevertheless, Mark Twain remains to this day, April 29, 2016, your most cherished writer to read, your most steady equivalent of true North on the literary compass, the pole star you seek when you are lost, the person with whom you would gladly share such celebratory dinners when you had occasion to celebrate any small triumph.

Small wonder then, that you chose Twain's memorable sketch, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," for your reading at a program devoted to a young audience, most of whom were accompanied by one or both parents.

You took stage with your script in hand, marked to indicate places to pause for breath or effect, or to cue you to a particular gesture. Venues with numerous young persons tend to be a hive or excited noises of enthusiasm and impatience, of sudden bursts of self interest or jealousy, and waves of curiosity expressed in loud questions or exclamations of the complex amalgam of impatience, frustration, and awe associated with young persons. 

You've heard such ambient sounds at birthday parties, grammar school graduations, even at concerts for children, featuring Leonard Bernstein, who knew a thing or two about taking on the temperament of young audiences.

Your own venue was no less than you described, including one young person, probably a boy, who was fascinated with the sounds of a motor boat, and which extended even after your introduction had been completed.

By the time you'd completed your preface to the story you were about to read, lapsed into the two characters, one of the narrator and the other of his central character, a garrulous old sort, even the motorboat was silent. You could feel the intense, group interest, hunched forward in the growing chill of the evening, the only sound the occasional snap from the fire in the fire ring between you and the audience.

"The Frog" was one of Twain's earliest pieces, but even at that point in his career, his talent was assembling itself in all the right places. You did not need many of the marks and cues you'd noted on your script; they were present in the phrasing, the punctuation, and in the rolling, liquid dialogue, which even you could capture, not so well as you imagine Twain to have delivered it when he hit the lecture circuits years later, but well enough to sense the bond between the listeners and the text you read.

After a few more pages of script, you were on a kind of autopilot, where you read the words without thinking about them, aware your voice was raising or lowering, projecting to the back row or causing the audience to lean forward for a whispered phrase before jolting them into a laugh or lurch over some line of dialogue.

For the final pages, you noticed your voice filling once again with the pride and joy of loving a man and his work, even those passages of later works you had issue with, even some entire works you are not connected to.  

After you'd finished the story, you heard that remarkable sound of an audience that sounded as though someone had given it a collective heave about the waist. It was the group sound of a gasp of acknowledgment at hearing a story, the likes of which they wanted more of.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Right Word--Not Its Second Cousin

 In one of the great ironies you have yet witnessed, you set forth years ago, determined to build a significant vocabulary with the ardent belief that the larger your vocabulary, the greater your toolkit for setting forth meaningful story and narrative. 

This quest was a deliberate part of your wish to become a writer. To you, this decision meant an acknowledged contract to deliver goods of feeling and clarity. Indeed, many of the men and women whose works you admired seemed to have at their command an array of words that would send you to the dictionary, only to discover how important these new words were in helping to plumb the myriad ways of the human condition.

Even before you had given yourself over to what you hoped was your profession to be, you were considered by teachers to have an above average vocabulary and an asshole by some of your contemporaries for seeming to use vocabulary as a way of buying in to some special status, or lowering someone from one run on a ladder to a lower rung.

The goal was to have as many words as possible in tow, the better to make intricate, braided concepts clear and to be able to layer your stories with untold nuance. The irony struts forth to steal the scene by the simple result: many of these newly acquired words, Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon in origin are simply exact translations of words already in play or brought on stage under such circumstances as, say, the Norman invasion, to produce language both Norman and Anglo-Saxon could agree upon.

As if that were not irony enough, consider how many of the words you troubled to learn, classify, and put to use in writing and speech do not at all provide the clarification you see in a kind of Platonic ideal, they actually muddy the effect of the sentence or intent in which you have them placed.

You have a list of about forty words such as very, somewhat, beautiful, forceful, exciting, and lugubrious, which at first sound appear as confrontational and exacting as charged dialogue in a well-written drama.

On closer inspection, words such as possibly, intermittently, seemingly, and disingenuous emerge like compromises obtained in an evenly divided congress, trying to pass some legislature. These are words you used with purpose and the sincerity of belief found in a person in despair taking a patent medicine to abate a painful symptom.

Each time you encounter a word such as these fateful light-weights, your Self in charge of Communication groans at the loss. This is the groan of learning. Enough groans, enough revision and editing add to that learning process called Muscle Memory.

Whether he wanted the job or not, Mark Twain became a mentor to you. "Can't you see I'm dead?" he might ask, but your reply is up to the task. "Yes, but your words live." Mark Twain was fond of saying, "The right word--not it's second cousin." With him in mind, you are working your way toward the level of first cousin, if not the right word.                                 

Some of your early submissions used words you thought would insure acceptance but which instead only hastened the time first readers at magazines and book publishing houses stopped reading a manuscript of yours, slid it into the SASE, self addressed stamped envelope, envelope of manuscript box, then got it posthaste to the closest post office for its return to you, sometimes with a handwritten acknowledgment of your industry rather than your story.

Until recently, when you were accused of discriminating against weasels by referring to words you disliked as "weasel words,", you've attempted to drop that meme from your active use, convinced as well that clarity and certainty are in themselves, with regard to fiction and dramatic writing, desirable but uncertain presences.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Our Teddy Bear Is Short and Fat

The past persists in catching up with you as, indeed, it has for much of your life. Why, then, suspect it will not continue to do so for the remainder of your stay here on this remarkable, orbiting planet? 

When you were a junior in high school, as full of yourself as high school juniors of your wonkish sort were wont to be filled, you were aware of the offered course in public speaking as a prerequisite to the class you wished to take, dramatics. Being in the dramatics class meant at least a walk-on in the main event before graduation, the senior play.

You already had in mind a play for which you rehearsed in your imagination, your role to be that of The Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which may well have the record for being the quintessential senior class play of all senior class plays. Of course you were jumping the gun; you'd yet to enroll in public speaking, much less were you to have earned the grade of A in it, all but a guarantee of acceptance into the dramatics course.

The junior year semester began, with you finding yourself in the public speaking class as taught by an agreeable woman of her mid forties, whom you set about convincing by words and deeds of your meriting a grade of A, your sure passport to the world of drama.  

While Miss Cline, the teacher, began to lay out the structures and concepts of public speaking, your determination and energy began to manifest itself in your searches for materials by which you would convince Miss Cline and future audiences of your sincerity.

Your first presentation was from Winnie, the Pooh.  "Here is Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, Bump. bump. bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." You'd practiced for a week, trying to get what you believed to be at the time a realistic rather than exaggerated English accent.

"B+," Miss Cline said.

Daunted, but not discouraged. you decided to stay with Edward Bear and his creator, A.A. Milne, for your next, in no small measure because Miss Cline praised your choice of material. You began:
"A bear, however hard he tries,
Grows tubby without exercise.
Our Teddy Bear is short and fat,
Which is not to be wondered at;
He gets what exercise he can
By falling off the ottoman,
But generally seems to lack
The energy to clamber back..."

"B+" Miss Cline said.

Okay, time for the big guns.  For your midterm exam, you chose a work you knew at some level to have been the launching pad for a writer you'd come to admire more than most, suspecting this author might last you into your thirties, perhaps beyond.  You built a slight presentation around "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which you'd read once or twice and saw as a vehicle to put your latent dramatic abilities to reveal themselves, whereupon you would later prove to be a credit to your high school.

"A minus," Miss Cline said.

There were a few other A minuses, but no, you did not earn the grade A, which meant no dramatics class, which, unbalance turned out well because it seemed to you, almost without exception, you did not like the persons who did, nor did two other individuals whom you quite liked, each of whom went on to a semblance of success in the world of entertainment.

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog" did, over the next few years, win you over to the point where you set its creator to be your literary pole star. Being dead for some years before your birth, he had no say in the matter.

These past few days, you have "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" in front of you, printed in a large enough type face to eliminate any need for glasses. You are soon to not only read the story to a group of youngsters, you've even built a bit of a story about it, necessitating your best estimation of Mark Twain's voice and, thanks to a marker pen, your cueing the manuscript to replicate Twain's sense of timing as the narrator.

In so doing, the past and present have caught up with you once again with your awareness that "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" had a certain familiarity about it, which you dissected as follows: "The Jumping Frog" is the story of a man who is pranked by an acquaintance to call upon and present himself to a person the pranking friend knows to be unable to either stop talking or to stay on any course of logic.

Two of your favorite Twain short pieces, well beyond "The Jumping Frog," are "The Grandfather's Ram," and "The Mexican Plug Horse," both of which involve the same device, of Twain himself being trapped by a garrulous older man, who appears able to go on forever, spinning out a shaggy dog story of excruciating length. 

The more experiences you have with Twain, the more you find common resonance with his slow, dead-pan delivery. And the more events you recall of your father, himself a natural at the dead-pan pace, the more you see the pattern of your own approach to any narrative.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How Did the Little Girl Get into the Rabbit Hole?

 There you are, half way through a book you hadn't read for about ten years, going through it to make notes for a lecture you'd want to give to a group of students reading it in your Explorations in Literature Class.  

Your first encounter with the novel in question was back in your days as an undergraduate at UCLA, where it seemed you had time not only for reading but for classes and those two requisites of any decent university education, beer and girls.

Your reading of the novel, Sinclain Lewis' Main Street, came at about the same time you read another memorable narrative which you should have connected at the time, but did not. In a way a small loss since, these many years later, during which youve reread both novels several times, you still had not made the connection--until now. 

Thus the point: You can no more run away from your past than you can run away from your future. The former will come back to haunt you and the latter will linger around to surprise you. They will meet on frequent levels at frequent times in your life, whether or not you've read about the circularity theories of Giambattista Vico (1668--1744) or his distinctly non-Cartesian posit that truth isn't observed, it is constructed from action.

So there you are, well before the most recent time of being midway through Main Street. In fact you are in a classroom, presided over by the chair of the English Department, dapper in his textured waistcoat, clapping his hands together to punctuate his question, "How did the little girl get into the rabbit hole?" 

You have relived and reused that moment several times over, that moment of being launched into an orbit created by a professor relative to something you'd read earlier as a child.  When you were at the age of having read Alice for the first time, you took it at face value, which was the probable stretch capacity of your ability to infer, deduce, interpret. 

You understood that the characters and circumstances were imaginary, but you did not yet understand how even imaginary beings could be seen as substitutes for other things.

You were at a literal age. A thing was itself; it was not anything else.  Comic book characters were not real; they were elements of a story, which was not real, but seemed real. Think then of the potential for culture shock. You first read Main Street within months of being led into the rabbit hole for perhaps the tenth time, but in this instance under the guidance of the chair of the English Department.

You are not so much surprised that you missed the connection between the two works as annoyed because now, at this remove from Alice, and into Main Street for at least the fourth time of close reading, you see a perfect parallel. Never mind that the author of Main Street may not have seen the connection even though he may well have read Alice.

In your estimation, there is safety in you telling your fiction writing classes that details must serve a greater purpose than mere decoration. Details are points of beginnings, of facts and sensations being set in some orbital path about the galaxies of your mind and its imaginative capabilities.